New variant | 

11 suspected Omicron cases in Ireland as further 4,607 positive Covid tests confirmed

Donnelly says travellers returning from seven African countries should quarantine for ten daysOmicron variant has health officials worldwide concerned due to its ability to outcompete the highly transmissible Delta variantGovernment is ‘no longer looking at subsidising antigen tests as the price of the kits has fallen in recent weeks’
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the subsidy of antigen tests has been scrapped. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said the subsidy of antigen tests has been scrapped. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Eoghan Moloney and Gabija Gataveckaite

There are 11 suspected cases of Omicron which have been sent for whole genome sequencing, the Department of Health has said.

It comes as a further 4,607 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed this evening.

As of 8am today, 579 patients are in hospital with the virus, of whom 115 are in ICU.

The suspected cases were sent for sequencing when a trawl of positive cases at the National Virus Reference Laboratory showed up positives which possessed an S-gene dropout, which is associated with Omicron, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said.

He also confirmed the Government was no longer planning on subsidising rapid antigen tests, as the price of the kits had fallen in recent weeks.

Mr Donnelly said household contacts of people who have returned from seven south African countries should quarantine for ten days.

Dr Holohan said that “We know that the news of the Omicron variant is causing some concern”.

"However, we also know how to break the chains of transmission of Covid-19 – these measures have worked against previous variants of Covid-19, they can successfully supress transmission of the Delta variant and we are optimistic that they will work against the Omicron variant.”

Under new Government rules, passengers arriving from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe must self-isolate at home for ten days and produce a negative PCR pre-flight and two negative PCR tests during their quarantine.

Speaking to reporters on his way into a meeting with Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan and heads of Government, Minister Donnelly said that household contacts should also self-isolate.

“For those who are arriving in now who have been in any of the seven countries over the last 14 days to home quarantine, there’s a day two and a day eight PCR test that’s required,” Mr Donnelly said.

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“We’re asking as well the household - so anyone who’s living with people who are back from these countries, to quarantine for the 10 days as well.”

Minister Donnelly said that passengers who have been in any of the seven countries who have come to Ireland “in the previous few weeks” should also “stay at home and get in touch with the HSE”.

“They’ll organise and prioritise a PCR test for you.”

He said that regulations have been signed for mandatory home quarantine and a negative PCR test on arrival, making them a legal requirement for passengers for the seven countries.

The HSE is now currently working through passenger locator forms of the suspected cases and contacting in touch with passengers.

When asked is negative pre-flight PCR tests could be a requirement for all arrivals, he said that the Government is taking a “precautionary approach”.

The S-gene dropout in the Omicron variant is also a factor of the Alpha variant, which was dominant last Christmas, but this variant has long been outcompeted by Delta and accounts for a very small number of cases in Ireland nowadays.

Despite this, Mr Donnelly said further societal and economic curbs are not on the table for discussion with senior Government figures meeting with public health officials today to discuss the emergence of this new variant.

Mr Donnelly said the Government was no longer planning to subsidise antigen tests for the public as they are now widely available for around €3-4 in supermarkets and for €1.50 in some shops, so the need to “spend taxpayer money to subsidise them” has disappeared.

The minister said that the retail price in Ireland is now the same as what the Government intended to make them available at, so the Government will not be subsidising their cost going forward.

“It very quickly became unnecessary.

"Since we’ve been looking at the subsidisation, the price has fallen. McCauley’s pharmacies, for instance, are selling them at €3 and some supermarkets are selling them at €3.99. I heard one retailer is selling them for €1.50.

“We have managed to achieve the price reduction without having to spend taxpayer money on subsidisation. The market has done it itself, without having to spend taxpayer money, so it’s a good result,” Minister Donnelly said on Today with Claire Byrne.

Mr Donnelly said that people should make sure they are purchasing testing kits designed for self-testing, rather than those intended for use by medical professionals. He also asked people to ensure the kits they buy are CE trademarked.

Minister of State and Government Chief Whip Jack Chambers said the Government will revisit subsidising antigen tests if their prices in shops begin to rise.

"It's important that they be accessible and affordable for all and that's why if there a fluctuation in price, it's something we'll have to keep monitoring and under review,” he said.

"We have to have a situation where the public can access and use antigen testing in a way that is now recommended by public health.”

Meanwhile, speaking in Meath, Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys said that subsidising the tests will be discussed by Cabinet ministers tomorrow.

"In terms of antigen testing, that's something I'm sure that we will discuss and something I'm sure that we will look at and make a decision on again tomorrow," she said.

This comes as the regime for antigen testing primary school pupils who are close contacts begins today. From Monday, parents will be notified if their child is a close contact of a case in school and will be asked to administer two antigen tests to their child.

This is a voluntary scheme and schools will not be following up results of these tests. This is for asymptomatic close contacts and If children have symptoms, they should stay home and be PCR tested.

Minister Donnelly said there is clear guidance on how to use the testing kits on the HSE website.

Speaking on Omicron earlier this morning, the minister said; “It is likely here.

"What we’re tracking at the minute is several cases that have this so-called S-gene dropout, and these have been sent for genome sequencing which gives you the definitive answer. But on the basis that Delta is almost all of the cases we’ve had here [recently], any variance from that, there’s a reasonable assumption that it’s this new variant.

“So yes, I think it is likely we will be reporting cases of it here in the coming days.

“From the conversations myself and the Chief Medical Officer have been having, the working assumption at this stage is at least some of these will be sequenced as the new variant,” the minister said.

The CMO Dr Tony Holohan is “very concerned” about the unfolding situation with the new variant, Mr Donnelly said, and added travel curbs on the seven southern African countries as a “precautionary measure”.

“We now have to wait and see what the science says. What we need is definitive evidence around whether it’s more transmissible or less, is it more severe - does it make people sicker - and one of the big questions is what impact the vaccines may have on it.

“At the moment, the scientific community is searching for those answers,” Minister Donnelly said.

In relation to the current Delta wave being experienced in Ireland, Minister Donnelly says there are reasons to be “cautiously optimistic” in terms of case numbers and hospital admissions.

Minister Donnelly and Dr Holohan will meet with Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan this evening to discuss Omicron and the evolving Covid-19 situation, and a memo will be brought to cabinet with recommendations tomorrow.

“There may well be recommendations to go to cabinet tomorrow but as of now, there aren’t any major changes being proposed in terms of societal or economic measures,” Mr Donnelly said.

The minister said he saw a a point in maintaining and introducing further travel measures even if there are some cases of Omicron in Ireland.

"What we want to do is slow this down as much as we can for a relatively brief period of times until we get the big answers".

Variant

The Omicron variant was first identified in Botswana and South Africa and has health officials worldwide concerned due to its ability to outcompete the highly transmissible Delta variant.

Many epidemiologists have pointed to the virus’ mutations on the spike protein as a cause for concern as they indicate an ability to evade vaccine antibodies and are linked with increased transmissibility.

Cases have been identified in many countries since its discovery last week with Australia, Israel, Hong Kong, Scotland, England and many other countries confirming cases of the variant.

Gauteng Province in South Africa, the first identified epicentre of an Omicron outbreak, has seen case positivity and case numbers skyrocket in recent days, albeit from a very low base.

Health officials have said it will take a number of weeks to determine if or how effective the variant is at vaccine escape or just how much more transmissible the variant may be when compared to Delta.

The head of the lab in Johannesburg where the variant was first detected in South Africa has said early indications are disease severity is not greater than any previous strains of the virus. Most cases are mild or asymptomatic but there have been people hospitalised due to the Omicron strain, Dr Alison Glass of Lancet Labs said.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has called for an immediate lifting of travel bans imposed by much of the world on several Southern African countries now that the variant has been detected in many continents already.

Ireland, in line with the EU, has limited travel to and from seven countries in Africa due to Omicron. These are South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.


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